In India’s southern state of Karnataka, just over 12,500 people have died of COVID-19 as of March 28, 2021. Bengaluru Urban, the tightly-packed, poorly-planned traffic jam of a city, as expected accounts for a majority of these deaths—over 36% of them. This is after some of the strictest lockdown measures in the country came into effect a year prior. Lasting a mere four months, the lockdown did little to curb the spread of the virus in Karnataka—the state consistently ranked among the top five in caseload—but it did much to drain its economy of what ephemeral income it had. The city’s coffers, like its once-bustling streets, were left barren. (An imminent second wave is only likely to worsen this situation.) When it came time to pad them up once again, I soon discovered that students like me would pay the greatest price.
Bengaluru to Bangalore—A Brief History of Migration and Housing
Just a year earlier, Bengaluru’s indigenous population had shrunk to less than 50 percent. Migrants, flocking to the city for employment and higher education, have caused a surge in rent prices—prices that no longer seemed worthwhile as India’s Silicon Valley, in light of the pandemic, shifted to the cloud. Who could forget Namma Bengaluru’s Great Migration of 2020? Like the poor who took to foot against gravel when the state abandoned them, the city’s middle-class soon too saw no opportunity in working or learning from “home.” Suddenly, without the daily commute, Uber and Ola had found themselves obsolete. Pubs and swanky restaurants catering to the suits and the overworked shuttered down. Most importantly, paying guest (PG) houses1 and apartments were emptied, much to the dismay of the housing gangs that once ran the city.
Today, a walk through Bangalore’s gentrified, middle-class migrant hubs, areas like Koramangala and Indiranagar, is enough to help you sense the city’s desperation. In bright red, all-uppercase, the to-let signs scream at you. “Pick me, pick me!” They beg. Like the apartments, the boards have collected dust. The middlemen, starved predators, have now gone several months without the feast of a hefty brokerage. You see, rent control is a myth in Bangalore. In fact, the Karnataka Rent Control Act of 2001, despite its name, mandates that a “landlord may lawfully increase the rent per year by an amount not exceeding ten percent” of a tenant’s current rent. Marx probably heaved a sigh of relief in his grave when it was passed, thanking the controller of the opiates that he was not alive to witness the occasion. As you would assume, this is every Bangalore landlord’s Giving Tree. The city’s landowning, real estate moguls—the pickiest, vegetarian-married-women-only of them all, have made a pretty penny off of leasing their apartments at inflated rents not unlike those in Mumbai and Delhi.
A few weeks into the lockdown, I spoke to my therapist of the wasteland our city had quickly become. A long-time Bangalore resident who during the pandemic had to give up his office space I had many a breakdown in, he told me of the lobby of landlords who ran the city. Nothing short of a mafia with connections to government, police, and the courts. It does not take an economist to guess what happened when their balance sheets had run dry owing to this “Great Migration.” It was obvious to even those naive enough to believe that the government had our best interests at heart. Nonetheless, in October last year, it became crystal clear to the students of St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Sciences, Bangalore, who really mattered to the government and by extension, the college management.
The Trickle-Up Approach
On October 29, 2020, my college released a notice stating that all exams were to be conducted offline. Yes, in the middle of a pandemic, my college expected 6,500 students—the majority of whom lived outside Karnataka—to cross state borders, use public transport, endanger their lives, the lives of their loved ones, and the city at large. All to write a series of puny exams, each more dangerous than the last. As someone who had left the city to be with her ailing grandmother in the ICU, with no means to return any time soon, I was left shell-shocked. When other colleges in the city, such as Mount Carmel College and even cousin concern St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, had chosen to protect their students and hold exams online, my college seemed to be stuck in an era that had long gone by, an era we Zoomed away from at superspeed owing to the pandemic.
On an average day of teaching, our classrooms could not handle my 120-student class; pupils would squeeze into rows of benches like tinned sardines. Despite this, the college shook hands with the city’s mighty and released their “Standard Operating Procedures” to throttle the meek. It was, after all, the state’s masterstroke. While private companies could not be forced into moving operations offline again, students would obviously be left no option when their futures were dangled in front of them on the fishing line. They would no doubt pay housing deposits and months’ worth of rent to secure their grades, and ultimately, their careers. Far too many of us were forced to take the bait, biting into fear, anxiety, positive COVID diagnoses, and exam results that did not reflect our academic proficiency. These are the costs of “academic excellence.”
In light of this predicament, as my peers did, I reached out to my college via email numerous times and even our student council—to no avail. The latter, I soon learned, was simply the student wing of our college management. Our votes meant nothing against executive power. Yet, I drafted emails for my classmates to send, collecting the email IDs of all those in charge and sharing them in mass broadcasts. I wonder to this day if the constant pinging of email notifications at the very least irked the management, if they heard our worry echo through the speakers of their phones and computers. Unfortunately, all we heard in return as students was silence. Prey, in fear of being spotted, will often remain quiet when a predator is nearby. I am no stranger to the politics of preservation. After all, what is a minority institution, the endangered buffalo, to do when a tiger-state government backed by fascist central forces mandates obedience? You stand still. You stay very, very silent. You pray this all blows over some day. You pray you keep your head—there is no reason to cry over a little spilled blood, especially if it is not your own.
Extra, Extra. Read All About It!
I must first state I have perhaps at best a teaspoon of faith in our news publications (political leaning no bar). As spaces for dissent shrink, journalists are powerless in the face of stronger-than-ever systemic influences and a government-sanctioned motley crew of fake-newsers—a reality we also experience within the classroom. However, on November 4, 2020, after the college ignored several of my emails and communication from my parents, I decided it was time to get the word out. If our voices could not reach from bottom to top, I wanted eyes on the outside peering in.
As a full-time writer in digital media, I was—and still am—privileged to have several coworkers who were formerly journalists. At my request, they helped me reach out to their contacts across well-known media publications. I also reached out to my peers: my classmates, juniors, and seniors I had never spoken to before, those in streams outside my own, those who were too afraid of sacrificing FutureTM in exchange for their god-given, state-delivered right to their own voices. I wanted them to share their stories. One student, who believed their published testimony citing concerns about offline exams included far too many identifying features, said to me: “What I told you was against college rules. It’s very easy to narrow [my testimony] down to me, for teachers are told to make a record of students’ doings. Could you edit my statement? Please, I am panicking. Please. I am shivering with fear.” The classroom, even virtual, is still a microcosm of sanghi country.
Along with them, dozens of other students were vulnerable enough to share their experiences with me. My WhatsApp number reached students from combinations I did not even know existed in my college. Their messages meant my phone dinged relentlessly, at all hours of the day. To me, their stories, their lived experiences were nothing short of agonizing. I found myself frequently in tears, sweeping up the shards left over from my personal heartbreaks. I am only grateful that I had the opportunity to listen to them, hear them out, at a time when they were shirked off by the very people tasked with the responsibility of enriching them, ensuring their safety and growth. I read stories from professors living with immunocompromised family members, too scared to speak up, their jobs held hostage before them. I read stories about how students were afraid of putting their grandparents and baby siblings at risk. How their father, an auto driver, had lost his income and therefore traveling to another state would be an expensive affair. I read messages from students in the North East, whose internet connections were far too weak to attend online classes; how could they be expected to travel such long distances, taking multiple flights in certain instances, to write an exam they could not even attend lessons for? They had asked the college for support—dongles, laptops, notes, and mail-in assignments, anything at all. Nobody cared enough to listen. I am thankful for the few journalists who did. Although nothing materialized out of it, there is at least written record of my college’s callousness. When we remember this pandemic, we will not remember the sad and cowardly resilience of a broken institution that compromised its own principles. We will remember the students and educators who gave up far too much.
A Little Girl and the Big Book of Law
There was no confusion to me about the legal gray area my college operated in. COVID-19 guidelines from the central government technically forbade colleges from opening unless laboratory work was required. Despite this, Karnataka had ruled as per Lockdown 4.0 protocol that higher education institutions could function in both offline and online mode (without much thought of how colleges would practically execute that or the pressure it would place on professors). In perhaps the only respite from this terrible situation, I remember laughing at a news clipping of how students from various, unrelated grades and degree combinations were brought together in one room to make it appear as if schools were suddenly populated for a photo opportunity with Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister Dr. Ashwathnarayan. Under the guise of protecting the “sanctity” of our degrees, St. Joseph’s chose to move forward with offline examinations. The Controller of Examinations wrote to one student in an email, “Bangalore University and Bangalore City University have started offline exams for more than a month and we do not want to take the risk of our students’ degree validity being questioned by conducting online exams as we are still affiliated to the university.” In plain speak, this was a threat. The students were fully aware of it. When asked why pupils in the final year were allowed to complete their examinations online, the college of course had no answers. “It was a stop-gap measure,” one college official told me. Apparently, stop-gap measures are valid, but only at the beginning of a pandemic, not in the thick of one. I am reminded of a quote about flying idi*ts2 and airports, but I shall leave you, dear reader, to figure that one out.
Meanwhile, a movement was spurring online. Students from other Bangalore colleges in similar situations had come together to create the trending hashtag #ReconsiderReopening. They tweeted incessantly to government officials, demanding that they be heard. They met with news channels and papers, especially those reporting in Kannada, to reach as many people as possible. I got in touch with one of the organizers, a law student who was in the process of filing a writ petition against their college. They had suggested I do the same. I had studied writ petitions in my political science class, an irony that is not lost on me. To understand whether filing a writ was the right way forward, I consulted a lawyer from Bangalore’s Alternative Law Forum whom I became acquainted with during the city’s anti-CAA protests back in 2019. While they warned that filing a writ may not necessarily translate into offline examinations, they suggested that criticism may, if Themis herself chose to smile down upon me, fall on ears empathetic to the challenges students were facing during the pandemic. They also ensured me that any lawyer would protect me from the baseless punishments outlined in student handbooks, ones that do not hold good in a court of law.
Perhaps it was my anger that fueled the decision. My unrelenting desire to show management that there were, in fact, students who were not afraid of their iron fists. Students who had fists of their own, balled up in the pits of their stomachs. Students who were hungry for a shred of justice, of empathy. Maybe it was the fact that the state had become my college, had become my home, had become me. I was tired of feeling powerless. I was tired of hearing from my classmates about how they felt powerless. So, after enlisting the help of an advocate I had the privilege of meeting through my lawyer flatmates, and crowdfunding the fees involved from my group of dedicated, loyal, and truth-seeking friends, I filed Writ Petition No. 12669 of 2020 in the Karnataka High Court. At the time, I was more afraid of telling my grandmother how I had recently spent a large chunk of my monthly salary, than I was of facing my principal in court.
The Scales of Justice are Tilted
Ultimately, I did not have to. As we inched closer and closer to the date offline examinations were set to start, I fielded text messages from concerned students. What had happened of the testimonies they had shared? Did I have any updates? Was the college really going to force them to risk their lives to write a few exams? Why did they have to choose between their right to life and their right to education? I had no answers. I repeated, “Please give me some time. I am working on it.” But in reality, there was not much left to work on. All I could do was wait for the writ to be heard. My lawyers had gone to college to personally hand-deliver the writ petition to our principal. I imagined a dramatic scene unfold: “You’ve been served,” my lawyers would say. How empowering that thought had been to me. Sadly, he did not accept the writ. He told my lawyers that he would wait for the official notice from the High Court, ignoring completely the urgency of the matter.
On November 13, 2020, after several delays, it finally went to court. Neither the principal nor the lawyers representing St. Joseph’s College made an appearance. If this is not the cardinal sin of pride, I do not know what is. The lawyer for Bangalore University, however, did appear. Off the record, he told the room that he had out of his own volition called Bangalore City University, under which my college is listed, and that the administration had clarified that they did not question the validity of exams held online. Colleges were free to hold exams however they wished, he said, so long as they held exams in some form. When my lawyers informed me of this, I thought I had struck gold. But the façade of a gold rush, the oasis in the middle of this desert void of justice, soon faded.
The final order for the writ petition does not state the lawyer’s comments. They were, as I mentioned, made off the record. But why? I believe the answer lies in who heard my case: Honorable Mr. Justice Krishna S. Dixit. His horribly sexist remarks on women aside (on a serious note although, how do men like this hold positions in our highest courts of law?), a quick Google search revealed to me something more sinister: He was, and in most likelihood still is, close allies with the managements of various St. Joseph’s institutions. From attending orientation programs to quizzes, Justice Dixit has made several appearances at our events. In fact, below you will find a photo of two pals, Dixit and our very own principal, at St. Joseph’s College of Law’s College Day in 2019. (Two of these links are from Wayback Machine as the original pages have been taken down. I wonder why? In the age of screenshots, this matters little.)
I wish to clarify here that a High Court Justice is allowed to preside over hearings even if a writ petitioner themselves believes there may be foul play. It is the responsibility of the Justice in these circumstances to excuse themselves from the bench, unless they believe they can hear arguments from both sides and then form an unbiased judgment. What I want to ask then, is how Justice Dixit had the conscience to not only preside over this case, but to dismiss it when the respondents named within the writ did not even appear in court to form a spittle of argument.
So, on November 13, 2020, my case was dismissed. As the fist in my stomach tightened, I felt the weight of 6,500 pairs of shoulders get heavier. Four days later, offline exams commenced. Students were told to bring COVID negative reports if they wished to write the exams; dozens of my peers caught the deadly disease in transit. One student who traveled from North India told me they were barred from writing their exams because they had contracted the disease. They would have to self-isolate in a PG at their own expense, they told me, and pay for their flight tickets back home after the ordeal of fighting the disease all on their own. On November 17, 2020, the total number of COVID deaths in Bengaluru Urban stood at 4,028. Only a week later, on November 24, 2020, this number shot up to 4,090. I do not claim that this was a direct result of offline examinations or colleges reopening. Nevertheless, that is eight people’s deaths per day that we could have prevented if we simply sheltered in place. If this is not cruelty, then what is? What is the point of running donation drives when ultimately, our institutions are defined by shady backdoor, under-the-table dealings?
After all this, St. Joseph’s College has scheduled alternative exams, set to take place on April 6, 2021. As my college marks Bangalore’s entry into a daunting second wave of the pandemic with another superspreader event, I want you to know that the fist in my stomach only grows bigger. Only clenches itself tighter. When this pandemic is over, when the blood has been spilled and the pockets have been lined, this little girl and her hungry fists will just be getting started.
- A paying guest home is when guests pay a monthly fee to rent out a portion of a house or apartment, such as one room. Landlords provide basic amenities, like food, laundry, and utilities. PGs are typically cheaper in comparison to rented accommodation.
- The word “idi*ts” is censored here as this is ableist language. Had this been a quote of my own, I would choose from the fine selection of non-ableist synonyms available to us in the English language.